My father loved to talk and was a great storyteller. Throughout my life, I would need to reserve a couple of hours when giving him a call because he always had a lot to say. My personality was comparatively more introspective and reserved, but I suspect that being conditioned to patiently listen for long periods encouraged me to be even quieter as a child than I would have been naturally. He was an extroverted, dynamic person who loved to sing, dance, and experience life to the fullest. His proudest achievement was being a loving husband, father, and grandfather.
I drove straight through the night from Indiana to Georgia when I got the call from my sister that our dad was digressing quickly and being put on a vent. We had just learned that he had an HAI and it was septic. When I arrived in the ICU, I tried to mentally prepare myself while placing on a yellow gown, mask, and gloves for contact isolation, but you’re never really ready to see a loved one hooked up to life support. Upon entering his room, I went directly to his bedside. I gazed into my father’s blue eyes, as he laid there listlessly, and tears streamed down mine. The ventilator expanded and collapsed with each mechanical breath forcing vital air into his lungs. I could hear the rhythmic monitors resounding near his bed as they echoed into the hall but tried instead to intently focus on the low voices discussing the current state of his condition. I told him I was there, and that I loved him. Turning his head toward me, his eyes widened with relief as he realized it was me. I imagined him saying my name out loud in a way that matched the expression in his eyes. Then he reached out for me, so I held his hand as I soothed his fevered forehead with a cool, moist cloth. I stood there endlessly wishing I had his gift of many words, feeling totally helpless, and then he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
My dad was a veteran with a strong will to survive and he was not going down without a fight. We marveled when he recovered from stage-four cancer, knowing how hard he worked to regain his quality of life. It was devastating that he had to battle for his life again with aspirating pneumonia and septic infection that he received as a resident of a long-term care facility. My dad was admitted on February 19, 2020 (one day before his 79th birthday), after sending an urgent call to my sister asking for help because his requests to go to a hospital were being denied and he felt like he was dying. She dropped everything and rushed over to him, but due to lack of cooperation from the staff, it took hours for the ambulance to arrive. He was severely sick and if she had not intervened, he would have died there.
Over the next ten days, I stayed with him in the ICU, even sleeping there, hopeful for any sign of improvement, but there was none. It is painfully difficult to see someone you love so vulnerable and weak but even harder to say goodbye. I didn’t want to leave him and it was emotionally heavy driving back home with hours to wrestle with a sinking feeling that it would be the last time I would see him alive; sadly, I was right. I am so thankful I had the opportunity to be by his side, hold his hand, stroke his forehead, and offer words of comfort because days later the realities of a global pandemic started to sweep through our nation. Although my father did not have COVID-19, the visitor restrictions left him physically isolated from his family, and on July 29, 2020, he passed away in the company of healthcare workers.
One life touches so many others, and that life is dearly loved by somebody. Each person has a family and an entire community of people that are impacted by their existence. Although we live in an imperfect world with opportunities for error, every single patient deserves the best care possible. Millions of people suffer and die needlessly every year from healthcare-associated infections and that is why our work matters so much. Every single detail in the continuum of care impacts real people and becomes part of their experience. Like others before him, my dad didn’t deserve to die because of a preventable infection he acquired from the facility where he lived. He also didn’t deserve to be denied his wish to go to a hospital sooner, when he may have recovered before the infection was allowed to advance to such a degree. It was so tragic for our family knowing he spent these last six months fully cognitive and suffering within a body that was slowly shutting down, yet unable to speak. As a daughter, I am grieving and as a healthcare professional, I am determined to continue raising awareness because I understand from both the patient and healthcare side how gaps in best practices can cause irreparable harm.
This year our healthcare systems and communities have experienced challenges, unlike anything that we could have previously imagined. As a culture, we learned that we could instantaneously lose what before would have been unthinkable. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many fractures in our healthcare systems, but more than anything it has taught us that humanity must work together by willingly engaging in civil discourse, and openly listening to opposing perspectives with respect if we are ever going to solve the complex issues of public health that face our interconnected populations. Meaningful conversations must happen from both a global and local perspective if positive change can ever be a reality.
There are many social determinants of public health that require imminent focus and attention. Issues facing infection prevention initiatives affect every single human life on our planet. Healthcare workers play a significant role in reducing the risk of disease transmission by consistently taking measures within their control seriously, such as washing their hands frequently, decontaminating and disinfecting surfaces and devices, appropriately wearing personal protective equipment, and following aseptic technique protocols. The biggest impact healthcare workers can have to reduce the risk of infection is to have a heightened awareness for detecting any potential for cross-contamination. We must become active advocates for patient safety by taking initiative to correctly follow universal precautions. Since we cannot see microorganisms, cross-contamination awareness is sometimes abstract, counterintuitive, and requires personal ownership in having a foundational understanding of microbiology.
It will take the commitment of everyone to make collective efforts that protect the greater good. We can begin with a decision to be open and aware of the personal impact we have on a moment to moment basis by holding ourselves accountable. For healthcare workers, this responsibility is heightened because other people directly trust us with their lives. Only when we choose to view our actions through the lens of the patient experience can we truly serve with compassion in every task we perform by honoring the preservation of life.
Lisa M. McKown (Wakeman), MBA, CRCST, CIS, CHL, MBTI, is a manager of research and development for Beyond Clean. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Integrative Leadership and an MBA from Anderson University. Lisa is a doctoral student in the Richard Fairbanks School of Public Health: Global Health Leadership program through IUPUI in Indianapolis, IN. She also holds a certification as a Meyers-Briggs Practitioner, specializing in interpersonal communication. Lisa contributes as an SME volunteer for standards development and other industry-related projects that promote the sterile processing profession, including writing workshops focused on creating and revising questions for the IAHCSMM certification exams. As a healthcare professional driven to influence positive change for patient safety initiatives, Lisa is a catalyst for the advancement of infection prevention within sterile processing. Her passion is education and she is energized when she can use her experience to develop people.
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